Review: Orphan Black (Season Two)

Orphan Black title card (screenshot via Space GO)

Orphan Black title card (screenshot via Space GO)

C+

The cover of the digital edition of the March 23, 2014 issue of Entertainment Weekly (screenshot via Next Issue)

The cover of the digital edition of the March 23, 2014 issue of Entertainment Weekly (screenshot via Next Issue)

It’s hard to ignore the Orphan Black hype. It’s a sensation worldwide and even made the cover of Entertainment Weekly. [Is that a new first? The first Canadian show on the cover of Entertainment Weekly? It has to be.] So caving to the hype (and admittedly looking for another show to review), I thought I’d give it a shot, but little did I know I was about to enter one of the most confusing hours of television of my life.

If you decide to skip the first season of Orphan Black and start with the second, you’re likely to be just as confused as I was watching the season premiere. The “previously on” bit did nothing to help me understand what the series is or where it was going. It was just a barrage of various scenes with people blurting out random things.

I’m willing to bet the people behind Orphan Black didn’t create the series with the intention of it being picked up randomly part way through. I think most modern sci-fi fantasy shows are like that and I suspect that’s often the case because they want to create a universe for these characters that’s detached from our own. So naturally, that takes time to develop and explain. Picking up a show part way through means you’ll miss out on that, and wind up like me, utterly confused.

However, without cheating by looking at the Wikipedia page or the about page on the show’s official website I’d say Orphan Black is about someone who has several clones of themselves running around and for some reason the person who the clones originated from is trying to track them down and kill them. Some clones seem more involved in fighting back than others and the resistance is where you’ll spot most of the drama, but honestly, even now after checking it out online I’m not even sure that’s right.
It's always quite a spectacle when the clones interact with each other (screenshot via Space GO)

It’s always quite a spectacle when the clones interact with each other (screenshot via Space GO)

The most impressive element of this show is that one person, Tatiana Maslany, plays all the clones. There are almost a dozen of them between the two seasons. So if you thought Toni Collette playing half a dozen or so alters on United States of Tara was impressive (as I did) that might blow your socks off. She plays them so well (for the most part, more on that later) and makes them so distinctive that it even blows Toni Collette out of the water. It’s sometimes hard to believe it’s the same actress playing all of the clones when watching the show. It is quite a feat. Even more impressive is that there are scenes where the clones interact with one another and they look seamless. Makes you wonder how they were able to do that. It’s quite something and oh boy, we’ve come a looong way from The Patty Duke Show.
If you keep an eye out you'll see a few references to Canadian culture like this CIBC clone CFID (screenshot via Space GO)

If you keep an eye out you’ll see a few references to Canadian culture like this CIBC clone, CFID (screenshot via Space GO)

Orphan Black has a TTC bus decked out with black seats (screenshot via Space GO)

Orphan Black has a TTC bus decked out with black seats (screenshot via Space GO)

Canadians watching Orphan Black might be able to notice some subtle canadiana in the show. One of the clones runs past a bank that is eerily reminiscent of a CIBC and Anne Murray’s “Snowbird” plays in a diner a few minutes into the season premiere. For those familiar with Toronto, you’ll notice GO trains running in the background in some scenes (it looks like the trains on the line I take into Toronto too) and another scene shortly after set in a TTC bus (with black seats instead of red ones).
Where Orphan Black stumbles aside from its complexity (which is so bad that it’s pretty much the television equivalent of the manic confusion of running with one’s head cut off) is it’s obvious they spent a lot of time (too much time) thinking “hey, wouldn’t that look cool?” It’s especially noticeable in the opening scene where it’s just over the top. They must have thought long and hard about the visuals: the dark rain, the empty diner, the camera angles, and while it all seems cool, it might be a wee bit too much. The what I could only imagine being the nearly obsessive nips and tucks to the scene, took away from the realism—it now looks too artificial.

Sarah's not quite happy with Rachel on the other end of the line (screenshot via Space GO)

Sarah’s not quite happy with Rachel on the other end of the line (screenshot via Space GO)

That isn't a 13-year-old past her bedtime that's Rachel, Sarah's foil (screenshot via Space GO)

That isn’t a 13-year-old past her bedtime that’s Rachel, Sarah’s foil (screenshot via Space GO)

Orphan Black doesn’t just go over the top with the visuals, but it does the same with some of the characters as well. A good example is again in the diner scene when the clone in the diner (her name is Sarah, apparently) calls the elitist clone (Rachel) who is all the way in a high-rise looking quite heinous. Rachel comes across as such of a stereotypical villain that you’ll likely think she was plucked out of a cartoon or an episode of the Power Rangers, which is a bit odd considering that physically she looks like a 13-year-old dressed up as a middle-aged business woman. Her bad accent isn’t helping much either. Granted with the actress playing so many roles, they can’t all be gems.

Here Sarah gets the brilliant idea to take a fire extinguisher to a wall to break free and it works? (screenshot via Space GO)

Here Sarah gets the brilliant idea to take a fire extinguisher to a wall to break free and it works? (screenshot via Space GO)

To cap off the scene, Sarah is chased into the diner’s small washroom and breaks through a wall with a fire extinguisher to escape. I’ve never seen that happen before. That’s gotta be the shittiest wall in existence. So yeah, it’s that over the top.
Everyone loves gabbing on their cellphones on  Orphan Black (screenshot via Space GO)

Everyone loves gabbing on their cellphones on Orphan Black (screenshot via Space GO)

Video chatting isn't uncommon on Orphan Black either (screenshot via Space GO)

Video chatting isn’t uncommon on Orphan Black either (screenshot via Space GO)

If that isn’t bad enough, Orphan Black lazily falls back on cellphonesa lot. I wonder how they would’ve done this show without that luxury 20 or 30 years ago. Yes, Orphan Black is modern through and through, and likely never would’ve made it onto the air back then, but never mind that, I’m asking how they would’ve told the story without cellphones? I often think many modern shows and movies use cellphones as a lazy way to add quick drama or to tie together two things that may have been hard to do otherwise and Orphan Black is no exception. Would people decades ago have accepted characters running out to a phone booth every minute so the story could progress? Likely not. So just because we can add phone conversations easily into the show because nearly everyone has a phone in their pocket these days doesn’t mean we should. There’s got to be better ways to move the story along besides having the characters gabbing on their phones or video chatting for what feels like a good chunk of the show.
You'll spot a few guns on Orphan Black (screenshot via Space GO)

You’ll spot a few guns on Orphan Black (screenshot via Space GO)

That’s not the only bad habit Orphan Black picked up from other modern movies and shows, like many other shows in this genre, it regularly falls back on guns as a dramatic device. It’s certainly not as bad as others, but it’s noticeable.
Going shopping for drugs and guns at the local Econo*Mart (screenshot via Space GO)

Going shopping for drugs and guns at the local Econo*Mart (screenshot via Space GO)

Customer service always comes first at Econo*Mart even when you're buying a gun out of an employees car (screenshot via Space GO)

Customer service always comes first at Econo*Mart even when you’re buying a gun out of an employee’s car (screenshot via Space GO)

Speaking of other shows, you’ll likely notice a few similarities to some other recent premium cable shows. Aside from the obvious United States of Tara element with one person playing multiple roles, there’s a Weeds element to the show as well. I’m specifically talking about the scene where the suburban housewife clone goes shopping for guns and drugs at Econo*Mart (a Walmart stand in complete with a star half way through the name). She just buys a gun from an employee’s car as if it’s nothing and gets immaculate customer service from the Econo*Mart employee in the process. They obviously took a few liberties there from the real life Walmart and chose to give the employee some actual customer service skills. Let’s not fool ourselves this is television not real life.

I also can’t help but compare this show to Continuum, which I reviewed earlier. Both shows are Canadian, overly complicated, and to get the most of them, it’s probably best to start from the beginning. Continuum‘s gimmick, however, is time travel, and of the two, Orphan Black‘s one person playing catch me if you can as different characters, and Continuum‘s time travel, I’d say Continuum has the far more captivating one. It is interesting to see them develop a future and to muck about with the present, but in comparison Orphan Black’s confusing premise doesn’t have as much of a payoff. Watching one person run around as different characters seems like it would get boring after some time once the novelty wears off. That’s not to say it doesn’t take remarkable talent to play all those characters—it does. It’s just that all those characters can’t hide the fact that it’s quite a dull story compared to zombies, Vikings, time-traveling cops, talking underwater sea sponge fry cooks who live in a pineapple under the sea with a pet snail that goes “meow,” and the rest of what cable offers.

To make matters worse Orphan Black seems to require repeat watching just to make sense of it, which isn’t the same thing as let’s say rewatching an episode of 30 Rock because you really enjoyed it and might have missed some of the gags. Can you really keep track of all the clones over the course of an episode, let alone a whole season without going back and rewatching episodes or scouring online fan boards? Let’s not forget many of these characters are clones so they look alike. If you can, I tip my hat off to you.
The show is dark and broody and is a favourite of TV snobs. (screenshot via Space GO)

The show is dark and gloomy and is a favourite of TV snobs (screenshot via Space GO)

Orphan Black seems to be a high-octane mess. It takes on more than it can chew with all these clones then it tries too hard to be cool and look cool. The Entertainment Weekly feature on Orphan Black seems to even suggest that the name was chosen just because it sounds cool too. The show is (or is like) one of those obscure things hipsters pickup because they think it makes them seem cultured or feel like they’re on top of something that’s really great (when it truly makes as much sense and is enjoyable as a one-year-old’s gibberish). What better way to be a TV snob than to really get into a dark, gloomy Canadian cable show where one person plays nearly a dozen roles when you’re in California and everyone else is talking about what happened on the last Scandal.

Ugh, Scandal, Kerry Washington doesn’t have talent. You know who does, this chick, Tatiana Maslany, on this show called Orphan Black. Oh that’s right you never heard of it. Now excuse me, I have to hop on my bike to go get some organic radishes and kale at the Whole Foods Market and then hang out at this coffee shop you’ve never heard of with my friends to discuss our favourite public radio show and yoga pants over some tea.

The truth is Orphan Black isn’t that hot. While playing multiple characters on one show is impressive, when you put those characters next to the list of all the characters some of the most prolific actors have played in their lifetime, it’s not all that spectacular. Again, the only main difference is it’s just these characters are all in one show opposed to several movies and TV shows.

Perhaps if I spent more time with the show, or if I was able to “get it,” I’d feel differently about Orphan Black, but as it stands I feel the series is overrated for what it is. Still I think it’s great Canada is producing original content people all over the world love, even if it’s a chaotic hot mess.
Episode Reviewed: Nature Under Constraint and Vexed
Orphan Black airs Saturday at 9 PM on Space
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